US soldier kills 16 Afghan civilians

US official said the soldier had acted alone, then returned to his base and surrendered.

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KABUL // An American soldier killed at least 16 civilians, including nine children and three women, when he opened fire on villagers near a military base in rural southern Afghanistan yesterday.

It was the worst single attack by foreign forces on Afghan civilians, apart from air strikes, in more than a decade of war. One villager lost 11 members of his family, and another lost four.

Tensions are already high after US troops burnt copies of the Quran last month, triggering a backlash that has killed dozens, including at least six American soldiers. Most of the US casualties were shot dead by Afghan forces.

Yesterday's attack by an army staff sergeant took place before dawn in the villages of Balandi and Alkozai in the Panjwai district of Kandahar province, about 500 metres away from a US base and in the heart of Taliban territory.

US President Barack Obama expressed deep sadness yesterday at a "tragic and shocking" shooting. "I offer my condolences to the families and loved ones of those who lost their lives, and to the people of Afghanistan, who have endured too much violence and suffering," Mr Obama said in a written statement.

The Nato-led International Security Assistance Force (Isaf) said a US soldier had been detained. "I cannot explain the motivation behind such callous acts, but they were in no way part of authorised military activity," Lt-Gen Adrian Bradshaw, the deputy commander, said.

The Afghan president Hamid Karzai called the shooting "a deliberate human killing" and demanded an explanation from Washington. "This is an assassination, an intentional killing of innocent civilians and cannot be forgiven," Mr Karzai said. The president said he had repeatedly demanded that the US stop killing Afghan civilians.

Some villagers said more than one soldier was involved but a US official in Washington said the man had acted alone, then returned to his base and surrendered.

The Afghan defence ministry said it "condemns this inhuman act in the possible strongest words and asks Isaf authorities to arrest the culprits of this inhuman deed and punish these individuals, so that the culprits of people's murder and violators are seriously dealt with."

US and Nato soldiers are normally required to travel in groups when they leave their bases and are not allowed to travel alone.

"This is going to create more risk [for Washington] and anger among people here. The West is changing regimes in the Middle East over claims of human-rights abuses and killings while their soldiers are committing acts like today's in Afghanistan," said Abdul Rahim Ayoubi, a politician from Kandahar.

The shooting started about 3am, said Asadullah Khalid, the government representative for southern Afghanistan and a member of the delegation that went to investigate the incident.

A resident of the village of Alkozai, Abdul Baqi, said that based on accounts of his neighbours, the gunman went into three different houses and opened fire.

"When it was happening in the middle of the night, we were inside our houses," he said.

"I heard gunshots and then silence and then gunshots again."

International forces have fought for control of Panjwai for years and launched several major offensives as they have tried to subdue the Taliban in their rural strongholds.

The Taliban movement started just to the north of Panjwai and the district was seen as key to securing Kandahar city to the east when US forces flooded the province as part of the US president Barack Obama's surge strategy in the south starting in 2009.

Mr Karzai said he was sending a high-level delegation to investigate and deliver a full report.

The Isaf commander General John Allen pledged any wrongdoing would be punished.

"This deeply appalling incident in no way represents the values of Isaf and coalition troops or the abiding respect we feel for the Afghan people," he said.

"Nor does it impugn or diminish the spirit of cooperation and partnership we have worked so hard to foster with the Afghan National Security Forces."

* Additional reporting by Associated Press